Ian Craig swears by two things: safe wilderness and conservation. The director of the Lewa Conservancy, home of the Northern Rangelands Trust, has dedicated 50 years of his life to protecting wildlife, particularly the black rhino and the endangered Grevy’s zebra.
The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) is a group of 43 conservancies covering an area of 63,000 square kilometers in northern and coastal Kenya. Craig serves as Director of Conservation.
Born in Meru in 1952 to an Irish farming family, Craig was educated in Nanyuki, Eldoret and Ireland. His family tended the cattle in Lewa and mingled with the wild animals. This brought him into contact with “intact nature” as a child, which aroused his interest in nature conservation.
This hardened conservationist, who has spent most of his life in the wild, speaks softly and does not strain himself during a conversation.
But when he speaks, you begin to see him as a man with a mission bigger than himself.
What has more than 50 years in the wild taught him about people and nature? He tells me that he has had the privilege of experiencing nature at its roughest.
“I have deep friendships with people who were born and lived with wildlife herding cattle. This led me to understand how animals live and why wildlife is a part of us.”
Craig has witnessed every episode of the Kenya Conservation Journey, growing up at a time when there were “free roaming rhinos” in Kenya and as a young adult witnessing firsthand the carnage of the 1970s when rhinos and elephants were decimated by poachers.
From 25,000 rhinos in Kenya to just about 200 now, he says this is the bloodiest episode in the country’s wildlife history.
“The rhinos came to Lewa to seek refuge, and over time the numbers started to increase,” he says.
This was the birth of the Meru County sanctuary he established by converting the family’s 140,000-acre cattle ranch into a rhino sanctuary.
For Craig, looking at conservation through the prism of tourism was a “stale, superficial and fickle” approach that he says needs to change. Away from tourism and animal husbandry, according to Craig, the future of conservation lies in the sale of CO2 certificates.
“It’s a game changer. This will transform the dream of protecting Kenya’s wildlife to one that will create the link between land planning, land use, wildlife and the consumer economy on a scale that will transform everything.”
He emphasizes the need for practices that are compatible with the country in order to achieve maximum socio-economic gain.
“I’ve sat on government boards and what seems missing is how to derive social value for communities from wildlife. We must enable our people to save. What are others doing elsewhere in Africa? What incentives do they give their people to save?”
But this approach has its complexities, with competing interests. However, Craig believes that strength lies in building institutional structures that allow stakeholders to speak with one voice.
“Government and NGOs listen when wildlife communities are well organized. Ultimately, communities are stronger stewards of wildlife than government can ever be,” he says, noting that such societies can receive bilateral funding for education, health care and other projects.
Craig’s grandparents came to Kenya in the 1920s. His mother, who died last year, was born in Kenya.
“My wife was born in Sri Lanka. Our son and a daughter work here. We have five grandchildren, some going to school in Gilgil, some in the US. We are a Kenyan family.”
While optimistic about recent conservation gains, Craig concedes that corruption and “an abundance of illegal firearms” are holding back efforts.
Northern Kenya is a terrible place to work. Craig calls it a lawless territory of ethnic conflict and banditry.
“It’s a pretty deep problem, but we work and live here. It’s like we’re in another world. How do we bring decency and reason into this society? I put this question to our government.”
Last year he and his wife came under heavy gunfire from bandits in an ambush in Isiolo.
“It was New Year’s and we were just having fun in the wild. I told her, ‘We’re not getting out of here alive.’ We survived by grace.”
He notes that conservation agency leadership is critical to addressing some of these challenges. How practical is this for an institution with more than 40 member associations?.
“Our leadership changes every two years so that people don’t get stuck in positions that allow corruption to take root in these societies.”
Earlier this year, an NRT was suspended from the NRT for poor governance, he says. “The money was mismanaged and there was no audit trail. There is a great message in that.”
Is Kenya now on track to restore rhino numbers? Craig beams for the first time.
“Kenya is doing very well. We are leaders in Africa. Rhino poaching has decreased drastically. As of the first quarter of this year, 83 rhinos have been killed in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. It’s different here,” he says.
As to whether private conservancies are the future of conservation in Kenya, Craig says they only do well in capacity.
“You are making your contribution. For example, if we didn’t have Solio Ranch, we would have virtually no rhinos in Kenya.”
However, he points out that private sanctuaries have their limits, adding that the migration of elephants from Marsabit through Samburu and Isiolo counties into Meru National Park is difficult to curb.
“They need a safe passage for these animals to move. This requires peace between the communities. For peace to prevail, there must be economic benefits for the people.”
His proudest achievements as a conservationist? The restoration of Sera Conservancy in Samburu County tops the lot. Sera is home to rhino, elephant, lion and buffalo and says 10 years from now Sera will be a prime travel destination.
“This has been done and fully supported by the local community. There are no third parties here.”
Because of milestones like this, he wants to stay in the wild for the rest of his life.
“I didn’t wake up one morning with a vision. I saw an opportunity and took it. I’ve met people with money who were willing to help me do what I love.”
What kind of legacy is he building for himself at 70?
“I would like to test the NRT model outside of Kenya. We have already started some work in Northern Uganda. This is not a project. It’s a movement. I don’t want anything more in my life.”